Emma deSouza: School abortion video scandal a wake-up call that our schools are still not secular

The disturbing, medically inaccurate and highly controversial film, produced by the Life Network in Texas, reportedly upset some of the teenage girls to the point of tears.
Emma deSouza: School abortion video scandal a wake-up call that our schools are still not secular

It is estimated that primary-age children spend 10% of their school year on religious formation. File photo: iStock

The screening of a deliberately graphic and scientifically inaccurate anti-abortion video to students at Ursuline Secondary School in Thurles does not warrant disciplinary action, according to the Teaching Council. 

The disturbing and highly controversial film, produced by the Life Network in the southern conservative US state of Texas, was shown to teenage girls in December 2019, presenting medically inaccurate claims as fact, and reportedly upsetting some of the girls to the point of tears.

Despite the growing plurality of Irish society, education remains a largely State-run, Church-led enterprise, propagating a breeding ground for the proliferation of conservative Church views on abortion. Without significant educational reform, the country will not be able to shake free of the Catholic Church’s conservative hold, and its full potential as a progressive rights-based society will not be realised.

The video in question promoted dangerous and inflammatory medical falsities including the allegation that having an abortion puts women at high risk of breast cancer, that abortion clinics harvest foetal organs with intent to sell them to medical researchers for profit, and that the “scalp of the aborted baby can be used to correct baldness”. 

Each of these fallacious claims is aimed at shocking and misleading young minds in an effort to indoctrinate the most vulnerable and susceptible within our society into the belief system of the Catholic Church. Such a level of misinformation and propaganda would not be deemed appropriate in maths, or English, or science, so why is taxpayers' money being used to proliferate objectively false and deeply distressing deceptions surrounding abortion?

The Teaching Council concluded that the video was acquired at a registered teacher training day and was therefore sanctioned by the Department of Education - once again highlighting systemic governmental failure to lessen the grip of the Catholic Church on State-funded education. 

The divestment scheme, aimed at transferring patronage, is a resounding failure, with a miniscule 2% decrease in Church-run schools in eight years, with 90% of primary schools still under Catholic Church patronage. 

The lack of secular options often leaves parents with little choice but to disregard their personal beliefs and enrol their children in a Catholic school, wherein they’ll be subjected to an integrated curriculum which permits the permeation of religious formation across subjects, meaning opting out of religious formation is impossible.

Religious formation is the ethos of a Catholic-run school - and as such, their emphasis on adherence to Catholic virtues permeates across all aspects of day-to-day life for school-aged children; from assemblies, to plays, to school visits, and even friend or family dynamics outside the classroom. The integrated curriculum means that religious formation isn’t restricted to merely one class, but instead bleeds into subjects established by science and founded in fact, not faith. 

A deeply disturbing example is the ‘Flourish’ Relationships and Sexuality Education programme produced for Catholic primaries, which teaches children that ‘Puberty is a gift from God. We are perfectly designed by God to procreate with him.’ 

The right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, and further bolstered by the Admissions Act 2018 which introduced a legal obligation on denominational schools to detail their opt-out policies - neither are effectively enforced. 

Ireland has been criticised at an international level for failing to provide an adequate opt-out system with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child calling on the State to provide a viable system, including an alternative, in its 2016 report. Despite international criticism and evidence that many State-funded schools are not fulfilling their legal requirement to outline an effective opt-out policy, the Irish government continues to take a backseat with no national guideline illustrating how the opt-out system should operate.

Parents who attempt to act on their constitutional right to opt their child out of religious education often face scrutiny and considerable resistance from the school patronage. 

Should a parent manage to successfully navigate the process, the result is ultimately revealed to be “opting-out” in name-only; those children are simply shuffled to the back of the classroom - exposed to the same lesson, with the addition of being socially ostracised while doing so. If the only proposed solution ultimately causes children to endure humiliation and confusion, there is no effective solution.

It is estimated that primary-age children spend 10% of their school year on religious formation. For children who’ve opted out of religious education, that amasses to an average of 91 hours of State-funded resources being wasted each year while these children are isolated and segregated in their own educational institution. 

And that’s without even including the hours which fall outside of the explicitly religious portion of the curriculum. The preparatory portions of the standard curriculum dedicated to Catholic milestones such as ‘First Holy Communion’ encompass significant proportions of the school year, during which time those of other faiths, and students with agnostic, or atheist views experience further isolation.

While Catholicism continues to decline, the numbers of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Orthodox residents of Ireland all continue to increase year-on-year. In tandem with the growth of these religious demographics, the portion of the population holding no religious beliefs has swelled to just under 10% of the population by 2016, the second largest grouping after Catholicism.

Simply put: the current structure is not viable, nor tenable, it discriminates against children, parents, and even teachers. What is needed is a public education system that makes room for all children, regardless of religious belief. 

Religious doctrine should be reallocated and restricted to out-of-school hours, and most importantly, the practice of seeping religious misinformation into scientific, factual subjects needs to stop. Many countries have abolished mandatory religious education or adopted viable opt-out systems with substitutions such as ethics or philosophy. 

In Ireland, our children aren’t offered any substitution and valuable time that could be spent helping students develop the skillsets they’ll need in life is lost.

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